The definition of a referee is someone who can control 22 players for 90 minutes without needing to send anyone off – that’s according to Derek Wildeman, who refereed in local football leagues for more than 30 years and who recently came to CHEC for cataract surgery.
With cricket his first passion as a youngster, Derek didn’t kick a ball until the age of 18. It was then that he was introduced to Rossendale United, based close-by to his Accrington home, and he fell in love with the game.
“I’ve always been obsessed with sports – in fact, when I met my wife, I made it clear the one condition of marriage was that she’d never see me much on a Saturday,” Derek said. “Around the time I began playing for Rossendale United, competing in local leagues every week, I started a new job as an engineer and played football every day on my lunch hour. Then when I was called up for National Service and joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers at the age of 22, my Sergeant and Captain – who were also local lads – put me on the team for the unit.”
Derek completed his National Service 19 months later, but rather than continuing to play football, he moved into refereeing.
“In those days, referees started off in the local leagues and progressed through different levels until you reached the Central League, which was one of the highest standards of football at the time,” he said. “I reached that point and refereed players including Jack Charlton, Colin Bell and Tommy Smith, working on matches for the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. I also refereed 16 international games. At no point did I have to issue a red or yellow card. I did it for over 30 years and absolutely loved every second.”
A change in hobby… and health
After his long stint of refereeing football matches, Derek moved into refereeing assessment to support the next generation of talent to come through the ranks. However, during the 2021/2022 season, he noticed a change in his eyesight that affected his ability to assess effectively.
“My job is to look at how referees are managing players, and you have to be very specific in your feedback and the detail you provide to justify the mark you’re giving – people’s careers are at stake after all,” he said. “But I was struggling to read the names and numbers on the back of players’ shirts.
“Over time, my eyesight got gradually worse to the point I couldn’t see anything on the pitch from more than a few yards away. In the 2022/2023 season, I assessed just two matches and decided not to do it again until my eyesight was corrected.”
Derek – who has four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren – visited a high street optician who informed him he had cataracts in both eyes, but said they weren’t yet severe enough to warrant surgery.
“I knew they were wrong,” he said. “My eyesight was affecting other areas of my life by that point. I was struggling to drive without terrible glare from the streetlights, for example. And I could feel it getting worse.”
Keen for a second opinion, Derek contacted another optician who said they would make an immediate referral to CHEC, with a recommendation for cataract surgery.
“I got a call within two days from a very polite member of the CHEC team who talked me through the next steps of the process,” Derek said. “They said I could have both done on the same day, or one followed by the other a couple of weeks later. I went for the second option, and had the appointment booked for within two weeks’ time.
“I got the bus to CHEC in Accrington. The hospital was very close to my house, which was a relief. The surgery itself wasn’t painful at all, and I felt taken care of throughout. The nurses were very reassuring, they clearly explained the aftercare process, and said that I’d be contacted about the second procedure soon. Someone called me a couple of days later to get booked in, and the next surgery was completed shortly after.”
Almost immediately following his first operation, Derek noticed a significant improvement in his eyesight.
“I couldn’t believe the transformation within such a short space of time, specifically in terms of colours and brightness,” he said. “I had two sweaters that I thought were green before the surgery – after the procedure, I realised they were blue! Everything has been so much clearer, and it’s easier to notice finer details.”
Talking about his experience of being treated at CHEC, Derek highlighted the team’s ability to make him feel comfortable.
“You can tell the team is made up of caring human beings,” he said. “Everyone addressed me in a very friendly manner, which put me at ease – that’s from the people on the switch board through to the nurses who saw me after my procedures. The whole process was very efficient and clear.”
A new quality of life
Though he’s decided he won’t return to assessing referees, Derek’s quality of life has improved so much since his cataract operation that he recommends it to friends all the time.
“I volunteer as a driver for a local, weekly Alzheimer’s group, bringing members to and from our meetings. I tell everyone who mentions they have cataracts to get the surgery done if they can, because they won’t believe the difference it makes to their life.
“Since the operation my glasses prescription has improved, and I find myself obsessed with reading things from as far away as possible – just because I can. At one point I couldn’t read the ticker tape along the bottom of Football Focus and Sky Sports – but now I can, so I have my love for football back again.
“I feel brilliant and advise everyone with cataracts to get in touch with CHEC and have the procedure as soon as they can.”